A potential boon for both agriculture and the environment has been hiding right under the noses of Golden Gophers across the great white north. Sort of like suddenly realizing dandelions could revolutionize the way midesterners grow corn, a common member of the mustard family is being touted by University of Minnesota researchers as a must-have for all cold climate farmers. It’s a humble weed that goes by the name of pennycress.
Like most living things in Minnesota, pennycress has figured out how to adapt to the harsh winters of northern North America. Although it doesn’t appear that these adaptions include either burrowing into the sides of hills or drinking copious amounts of alcohol, as is the region’s tradition, the common weed has nonetheless figured out how to thrive in the winter.
So how would this help farmers, you ask? After the fall harvest has been taken in, the agricultural landscape is a vast swath of barren dirt fields with pieces of broken plant matter dropped across the earth like so many broken skeletons. With the plants all taken in and their root systems destroyed, winds and rains are free to wash the soil – and the accumulated pesticides and fertilizers stored within – out into the rivers and lakes nearby. The result is either poisonous runoff or drainage so fertile that algae blooms suck up all of the water’s oxygen, still killing off the indigenous wildlife.
So stringing two and two together, planting pennycress in fields after the last harvest of the year could prevent erosion and the resulting groundwater pollution. What’s more, with a bit of genetic modification, its seeds could be harvested for oil for biofuels and the crushed remains used for animal feed.
But before you get all up in a huff about genetic engineering, that’s not what the University of Minnesota is advocating for. They want to use tried and true methods of breeding to get to the domesticated version of pennycress that they want. Rather than taking hundreds of generations to get there, however, they’re hoping their knowledge of the plant’s genetics can get results in just a few years.
Because researchers have already identified all of the estimated 33,873 genes in the pennycress genome, they are confident that they can identify the genes responsible for its cold weather survival, amount of oil in its seeds, and nutrition in its husks. Then, rather than going in manually to change the genes, they’ll simply continue to breed the offspring of the plants with the mutations they’re looking for.
When you think about it, humans have been participating in genetic engineering ever since we started farming. Cabbage, broccoli, brussel sprouts, and cauliflower are all decedents of the exact same plant, for example. By picking and choosing traits that are desirable, humans have slowly molded them into different species. Is going in manually and changing a plant’s genetics instantaneously rather than over thousands of years really so different?
What’s more, this story is the perfect example of why basic research is so important. It just so happens that pennycress is extremely similar genetically to Arabidopsis thaliana – the “lab rat” of the plant science world. Although there weren’t necessarily immediately identifiable benefits to sequencing the genome of A. thaliana and cataloguing its genes, scientists went ahead and did it anyway. And what do you know, years later, that knowledge is essential to quickly producing a desirable agriculture plant.
A lot of the seemingly useless research out there isn’t so useless afterall.
“This is a perfect example of using knowledge gained from basic research to find practical solutions to problems facing society,” said David Marks, professor of plant biology at the University of Minnesota.
The study, “De novo assembly of the pennycress (Thlaspi arvense) transcriptome provides tools for the development of a winter cover crop and biodiesel feedstock,” was published in The Plant Journal by Marks, plant biology graduate student Kevin Dorn, colleague professor of plant biology Don Wyse, and Johnathon Fankhauser, all of the University of Minnesota.